Britney at Breaking Point (Channel 5, 3rd November 2019)
A couple of years ago, Britney was asking us not to forget about her. Devoted fans would never, but to the wider public her plea was a timely one. I say this because a brand new Channel 5 documentary, about 14 critical months in the life of a woman described as one of music’s most iconic stars and most famous celebrities, wasn’t previewed or highlighted anywhere and passed by with little comment.
Granted, it covered territory very familiar to fans and celeb columnists, but nonetheless it was fresh, well –produced and thorough. Expert comment was obtained from (among others) psychologists Geoff Beattie, Judy Ho and Linda Papadopoulos, biographer Steve Dennis, celeb watchers Perez Hilton and Ashley Pearson, former mag editor Rob Shuter and from Britney’s old friend, dance instructor Robert Baker.
One sure sign of Britney’s current status, apparently viewed by present-day media either with affectionate nostalgia or as simply no longer worth kicking, was the sympathetic tone of the documentary. Where once there would have been smart-ass snidery, and blame for her gaffes and misadventures, there was now nothing but patient analysis and understanding of the stresses and pressures that had built up in Britney’s life.
At the time, her troubles were catalogued for all to see. Her whole life was being played out in public – every moment minutely analysed, every flaw and mistake seized upon as a cause of shock and outrage. Young people want fame but can they handle it? Comparisons were drawn with George Michael and Whitney Houston, but there have been many more. In the end, money can’t protect you.
It’s hard to grasp the level of fame and/or notoriety that surrounded Britney Spears in the years before the Conservatorship. Once “blood in the water” was smelt, an entire mob of paparazzi was detailed to follow her around, using high-speed photo-bursts to break down every micro-second – every movement, gesture, micro-expression – for photo-agencies that paid the most for the shots that made her look the worst. For the paparazzi, being “on Britney – exclusive!” meant big-time money.
Her marriage to Jason Alexander was probably her first attempt to go “off script” and seek the normality of family life among people who valued her for herself, and not because she was Britney Spears. But she was rapidly reminded that she wasn’t so much a person as a multi-million dollar business, and, within hours, her “people” descended upon her and took back control of her life. But being told what to do all the time really messes with your self-esteem.
However, she wasn’t so easily to be deflected from her goals of marriage and kids, and within a few months embarked on her second marriage, this time with Kevin Federline. Above all else, Britney wanted desperately to be loved, but Kevin’s partying ways led to a break-up. She was heartbroken and never really managed to deal with the trauma.
An early indicator of possible mental health issues was the sad and distressing scene where Britney sat on the curb with her little dog, crying her eyes out to the paparazzi, who, ironically, were the people she spent most time with. The strain she was under was clear, but back then, the recognition of signs of mental illness were far less advanced than today. She needed someone to help her cope with fame, and more specifically with the conflicting tensions of being both a star and a mother in the unending public gaze. We were all playing judge and jury, as I well remember from my involvement in the Britney message boards of the time. “Blame culture” infiltrated the discussion of every action. The paparazzi swarmed around their biggest money-maker, but they were hunting her down. Bad stories sell, and the pictures that went round the world were not favourable.
With a few mishaps making the headlines, Federline’s attorneys attacked her in ways that seem blatantly disreputable. For example, when Sean Preston fell from his high chair under the care of his nanny, they called Family Care Monitoring Services, claiming that Britney needed a monitor. Despite the frustration of being under constant observation, she was found to be really good with her children.
The level of fame and amount of attention Britney endured is hard for us to comprehend. Britney’s troubled era was at the peak of “lad culture” where a woman is valued primarily for her desirability. They were different times and the “virgin whore” image captured the fascination of the world – a fascination that led to an insatiable public appetite to watch every move she made.
It’s hard enough as a band member, but at least you have the presence and solidarity of the other band members. As a solo artist, you can become surprisingly lonely and isolated, and soon you don’t know who to trust – it can destroy you. The people around you may not necessarily be there for you. The thing about fame is that you can’t switch it off. Britney was a homegirl who wanted a normal life. But normality was not an option.
Two months after the birth of her second child, Britney filed for divorce from Kevin Federline. To fans at the time, this was a moment of joyous celebration. But, far from giving her any sense of release, her life began to spiral out of control. With divorce, everything changes, and you have to adapt in a major way. But for someone in the public eye, you also have to worry about your narrative, the public presentation of the facts, the image you’re trying to portray. So much so that you can begin to forget who you are. And, completely out of character, Britney started partying hard. But she could never handle that and it affected both her health and her work. Yet she was pushed again and again to get out on stage for the benefit of those who were financially dependent on her.
Her life came to a standstill on January 21st 2007. Her beloved aunt Sandra died, and this brought the partying to an end and had a huge effect on her state of mind – the loss of one of the few people she could really trust. And now the combination of custody threat, the psychological effects of divorce, and the bereavement – all under public scrutiny – came at her like a tsunami. Not surprisingly, she began to unravel .
In February 2007, the people around her finally saw that she needed help. She needed to get away from the turmoil and they sent her to rehab in Antigua. But she was sent there against her will, and 24 hours later, she checked herself out. Britney, at this point, was not thinking straight and completely lost control. She had a burning desire to see her kids but about 70 paps were following her and her behaviour was erratic. She was on her own with nobody to guide or advise her. And this was when the infamous hair-shaving episode occurred – an irrational act born out of inner chaos. Almost as if shedding of her identity, finally tired of her superstar status.
She had two bodyguards who were supposed to stop the paps from taking pictures. But the bodyguards actually allowed the paps to take pictures – and somebody made millions out of them. But the pap snaps that show her apparent manic glee as she shaves her head are completely superficial and fail to communicate her poor mental health – a moment later, her expression changes to sadness as she realises what she’s done. Her first concern was what her mother would think. At her lowest ebb, her mom was her safe place. Was this a cry for help? For the paps, with their power to destroy a career in a second, it was an existential moment. “We’ve got all this. Now what do we do?”
The narrative then returns to the origins and history of Britney’s fame, her meeting with Nancy Carson, the Mickey Mouse Club and how talented she was. She was polite and quiet but a born performer, who lit up and owned the room when you asked her to perform. Disney’s talent scout had no hesitation in signing her. But on the inside she remained innocent and shy. She was packaged as the all-singing, all-dancing princess of pop, but her adult responsibilities robbed her of her childhood.
But back to the head-shaving night, and her visit to the tattoo parlour. Her life was craziness and there was no peace, no time alone for her to be an ordinary girl and figure out who she was. Outside of performance mode, she had no underlying reality. Nobody around her seemed to care who she was, and were simply waiting for the crash – but these were paparazzi. Next day she was on the road again, leading the paps on the usual manic chase, now speaking in different accents as if rejecting her usual persona.
Her behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictble. She kept visiting the pools in her favourite Hollywood hotels even though she had one at home. She seemed to have no money of her own to buy a swimming costume and stripped down to her underwear. On one occasion she shaved her legs at the pool. But she was a huge star and nobody had the courage to take her in hand. In those days there were no social media, and her parents and management only knew what she was doing through the daily pap pics.
But now, her “people”, alarmed by what they were hearing, decided she needed closer control and sent her to rehab again. But again she left after a few days and was soon back banging at Kevin’s door. But he refused to let her in. She drove off, accompanied by her cousin Alli Sims. When they pulled into a gas station, a couple of the paps caught up with them and began to take photos and videos, despite Alli’s pleading. Britney grabbed an umbrella from the back seat of her car and went on the attack, hitting a pap’s car and causing minor cosmetic damage, and whacking a pap across the back. Here, the incident is described in minute detail, although psychologist Geoff Beattie points out that we all have moments when we act irrationally – but nobody notices. Here, Britney cracked and lashed out at the press, at fame, at her life, and at who she had become, and – inevitably – dozens of paps were on hand to ensure that this minor drama became a major news item.
One pap interpreted her actions as a cry for help, but psychologist Judy Ho speculated about alcohol and substance issues and mental illness, and saw a danger of self-harm and possible suicidal ideation.
Now at rock bottom, Britney herself recognised the trouble she was in, and checked into Promises rehab in Malibu, where she stayed to complete her treatment. After a month, she came home. Beattie points out that we all have times in our lives when we need to think and act differently and re-evaluate. He points out that you need a quiet period of latency when you come out of rehab, but in Britney’s case, she was greeted by the same firestorm as when she went in. However, her relationship with the paps had become more toxic .
Journalist Ashley Pearson says that, whereas here and now we are more aware of mental health, back then the press who were reporting on her actions had no idea what was going on.
And at this point, Kevin Federline took legal action and was awarded full custody of their children, and Britney’s worst nightmare came true. She was now at breaking point. Observers noted how broken, sad and lonely she seemed to be; how she needed companionship. Her image of herself as a mother was shattered. Her biographer Steve Dennis said she was used to coping with life by going into performance mode; it’s how she kept going and found a sense of identity, but now she was in private-person mode and it left her lost, confused and disoriented. The attention, the scrutiny were killing her.
And now we come to the disastrous night when, after a successful visitation with her kids, she refused to hand them back and locked herself in the bathroom for hours. Psychologist Linda Papadopoulos explained that, when we’re in good mental health, we take care of our future as well as our present, and think of the implications and outcomes of our actions, but Britney’s feelings towards her children at that point were too deep for that. She hugged her baby close and couldn’t bear for that moment to end.
Finally she was brought out and taken to an ambulance. It was a disturbing and distressing scene, but the paps surrounded the ambulance like flies, and intruded to take tasteless pictures of this wild-eyed, dishevelled girl who was clearly having a breakdown. Britney was placed under a 5250 involuntary psychiatric hold, which is available to doctors to deal with certain mental disorders. Geoff Beattie says that it was more like bear-baiting or putting someone in the stocks. It shouldn’t be for public consumption.
Britney’s first manager, Nancy Carson, cried when she saw these scenes. She loved Britney, and was glad and relieved that her parents acted as they did. She was placed under a conservatorship, restricting her to the same rights as a 12-year-old child. She had to ask permission to use the phone, to take the car keys. But it probably saved her life. She now had a chance to re-do her childhood, and do it the right way this time. Beattie believes the public has changed and he hopes and trusts that, with modern sensibilities, they wouldn’t enjoy watching it in quite the way they did then.
This was how Britney’s world looked when “Britney At Breaking Point” was made, two years ago. But since then everything has changed. The conservatorship came to look more like a prison sentence than a rescue mission, and the Free Britney movement gained traction and much publicity. For some reason, Britney herself had previously not said much about her situation or made a personal appearance in Court, but now she did, with dramatic results.